I wrote this before I left London, never published it. But in this moment, I feel it is salient - so, here you go.
Jane Kelly, a resident of my borough Ealing, recently wrote a piece detailing how she has been made to feel like a stranger on the streets Acton. Her experiences of alienation and isolation, which I am not dismissing, led her to write a piece that shows no sympathy for one of the most persecuted and destitute communities in our country; the inner city Muslim population. An eighth of our city are now Muslim, many of whom are of Arab and Asian heritage and have settled and formed communities that do not assimilate seamlessly into British culture. Their beliefs and cultural traditions are at odds with many predominant themes in our culture, which leads to a form of self-segregation. Before addressing the lived reality of West London, let us look at the facts.
South Asian Muslims, predominately from Bangladesh and Pakistan are 8 times more likely to suffer racially motivated assaults in Britain than whites are. Since the “war on terror” began, Muslims have faced police profiling and arbitrary arrest (institutional racism some may call it) while watching their kin brutally killed in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, Mali, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Libya. In the past 10 years, hundreds of thousands have been killed for the security interests of the West. As most are able to recognise, motivations for this aggressive foreign policy are multifaceted, but a scramble for resources is clearly an incentive and explains the otherwise incomprehensible policy towards states like Saudi Arabia, who propagate and proliferate the most problematic forms of Islam and who accounted for the vast majority of the hijackers of 9/11. Yet, due to their compliance in energy markets and their ability to buy vast amounts of British made arms, they are supported. Unsurprisingly, 80% of Muslims identify first and foremost as Muslim and British second, if at all. Why is this? European culture has not welcomed them, ingratiated them into the economy nor provided them with an identity that accords with their faith, rampant sexuality and violence being seen as haram and all. Europe has always had a problem with those different from itself. The bloodshed over religious differences within Christianity, the massacre and discrimination of European Jews stand as historical examples that Europeans, despite pretence, don’t respond well to “others”.
So, in the wake of the war on terror, European Muslims have insulated themselves to a certain extent and don’t disperse themselves throughout the country, but concentrate in enclaves where their cultural and religious practices are respected, tolerated and welcomed. Many areas have shown no hospitality to Muslim settlers and far-right thugs have beaten Muslims across the country for simply being. I am proud that my end of West London is part of an inclusive culture and it is something I defend. Jane Kelly is right to a certain extent, from Ealing Common until Westfield, the Uxbridge Road has a significant proportion of Muslims, who have made the area their own. In so doing, the area has transformed with Shisha Cafes, Kebab shops, Halal Butchers, Indian Takeaways and Islamic run independent coffee shops burgeoning. As a young white youth, I welcomed this. It has made the area safer in so many ways. I remember times when the area lacked this cultural dominance and friends and I would feel unsafe, threatened with robberies and rucks with Shepherds Bush’s “biker crew”, among other street gangs who dominated the area. Now though, the Uxbridge Road is a relative safe haven, populated into the late hours by politically and socially conscious religious followers who informally police the area through a sense community, creating a feeling that is welcoming to any. Islam as a faith is not colour specific. My brother, a white revert, frequented the Shepherds Bush mosque so much so that many of his brothers recognise me and say their salaams and ask me to send them to my brother and family.
I grew up in Acton, Ealing and Brentford, attending schools in Ealing and Hounslow and due to this have friends from across the globe. I have been welcomed into the homes of Somalis, Afghanis, Palestinians, Iranians, Bengalis and many other Islamic households and been fed to my heart’s content. I have learnt a lot about the cultural practices of Islam and more about how they, as a faith, respond to the pressures put on them by a national culture which makes of them an enemy. Islam, despite the actions of a few, is a religion of peace,that respects religious and cultural differences, so long as their faith and practice is respected. So, I am surprised by the vehemence that Jane Kelly feels towards the emerging populations of Acton. I feel Acton is now far safer than it was when I moved there in 1993. I ride my bike along the Uxbridge Road at all times of the day and not once in recent years have I been stopped, accosted or threatened. This was not always the case.
Lived experiences such as my own are clearly generational. I accept that while I can engage with my neighbours and discuss within cultural and religious groups that are not my own, such an ability does not extend to all. But, the immaturity and petulance of comments such as “overnight it’s changed from Acton Vale into Acton Veil” do not extend olive branches, but pander to racist and regressive groupings such as the English Defence League, who loved Jane Kelly’s article and posted it across their blogs. Ms Kelly’s aggression can be boiled down to her inability to accept cultural differences. Women wearing the niqab are by no means inaccessible, in certain contexts they are happy to engage in conversation and can be extremely vocal, but on the street, it is their cultural practice to avoid attention and they seek privacy, so while well intentioned, attempts to smile and talk hit wide of the mark. I’m sure defenders of Jane Kelly will cite examples of male dominance and patriarchy and claim, in universal terms, all Muslim women wearing headgear are being controlled by patriarchal zealots, without realising their own intolerance through their brand of European secularism.
That Ms Kelly has experienced discrimination is questionable, her example of a curtain shop no longer doing installations is not necessarily a sign of anything other than an adapting model of business in what looks to be a triple-dip recession. As for the lack of banter, as anyone who has engaged a shop-keeper glued to his phone may realise, many of the workers in these shops work two jobs in order to live and that their use of technology is their breadline in what is otherwise a low-paid, monotonous and repetitive job. I get banter all the time from those who serve in shops, but then I don’t tut and roll my eyes at the circumstances of others.
London is layered city and what for me is a sign of progress is understandably to the more conservative a lurch in the wrong direction. Variants within our identities can explain such differences in perception; age and class being key. I am of a generation that has grown with immigrant populations as normal and natural to my city. I have read enough history and engaged with the parents of my friends enough to know that migration to England was made by many to better lives, but almost all migrants from outside of the European Union came as a consequence of need. Britain needed migrant workers to rebuild itself and to make itself competitive in the world and the world’s people responded; not, I admit, through pure altruism, but through a mutually beneficial relationship for life in England offers security, safety and sanitary conditions. I believe we should reward people who came to serve this country and better themselves by respecting the areas that they have settled in and adjusting our behaviour accordingly. I defend the right of a shop-keeper to marshal the territory outside of his shop and to choose what produce to sell. Hundreds of Muslims shopkeepers sell us products that they consider haram (sinful) and some (not saying any names) will sell us a cheeky can or two passed 23.00 when we want a beverage. It is all a matter of context. If I am in an area like Tower Hamlets, unless I am on Brick Lane and partying hard, I respect the make-up of the area and will not act in a way that stirs discord. That does not mean I endorse the policing of the area by a tiny minority of Muslims youths who have taken it upon themselves to accost scantily clad women, suspected homosexuals or drinkers. It just comes down to how we as a city respect and live with difference. Intolerance to difference from any minority is self-defeating, but given the persecution that Muslim youth have experienced in the post-9/11 years, we can understand it and try and address it as opposed to seeing it as the beginning of the end of British culture, if such a thing can be said to exist.
Articles like Jane Kelly’s aren’t brave, nor are they “reluctantly racist”, they are overtly so. Ms Kelly is clearly a smart woman, she knows how to articulate in a simple fashion a growing nationalistic sentiment that is brewing, Europe wide. There is no particularity to the British experience. The reality is, Europe is Islamophobic and is lurching towards the far right in many areas. The bases for this discrimination and prejudice are book-worthy, but can be reduced down to what Ms Kelly herself acknowledged. The reality of modern London is that its central areas are being priced out, for all. There is a gross housing crisis and problem as wages are too low. Most, to exist, rely upon government subsidies. The government aren’t subsidising us, they are subsidising big business, who all of this is an attempt to entice. The culprits of the breakdown in community are not the migrants who came in the pursuit of a better life, it is the big businesses that dominate our society and the lackey politicians who don’t have the minerals to stand up for their constituents. At a time of housing shortages, local contracts are awarded to developers to build expensive riverside apartments, but not the required affordable homes. But, with the changes that are coming to benefits in this country, a new reality will emerge and it looks to be Dickensian. Slum landlords, over-populated housing crammed full of over-worked people, irrespective of their skin colour or religious belief. Huge amounts are simply being priced out of London, with Boroughs like Camden procurring properties for those it has a duty of care over as far as Manchester or Hull, areas where child poverty is in above 40%. Ms Kelly’s dream of a more white, more pristine London may not be too far away. Slum boroughs will house the cleaners, nurses, nightworkers and labourers who keep the city ticking, while the rest have their basic needs catered to in wholly alien areas, where they will face discrimination and hardship all over again. The London prejudiced whites want to see may not be too far away; a place where you’re only welcome if you have money, assimilate entirely or confine yourself to a socially engineered ghetto. For bigots who have a problem with immigrants simply for being, all of this makes the prospect of “voluntary repatriation” more likely, a solution Ms Kelly and her Salisbury Review advocate for. At a historical moment like ours, when the poor of our city face such challenges from the very top of our society, this scape-goating is low, very low indeed. London will be better without bigots who want to talk over the garden fence with a language that should be confined to history with the death of Enoch Powell.
By Daniel Renwick